Developer / Publisher – Kluge Interactive
Price – US $19.99 / EU €17.95 / UK £15.49 / AU $29.05
Release Date – October 31st, 2019
Input – 2 x Tracked Motion Controllers
Play Area – Standing
Store – Steam
Reviewed on – Valve Index
Do you need another VR rhythm game in your life? It’s certainly a question I had on my mind upon booting up Synth Riders, a cyberpunk themed VR rhythm game from Kluge Interactive. Hot on the coattails of Beat Saber’s extraordinary success, we’ve had an influx of hard pumping, EDM infused, rhythm VR games that aim to get your heartrate beating by making you swing your arms or perform dance moves in time to a thumping soundtrack. Just in the past few months alone we’ve had Audica, Audio Trip and BoxVR, all of which provide a riff on this core concept.
At its most basic level, Synth Riders appears pretty similar to these games. You’re stood on a moving platform with either a white or pink orb in each hand and have to hit correspondingly coloured orbs in time with the music as you travel through a stage and lines of orbs unfold in front of you. If you have ever played any rhythm VR game, you will know what to expect here. One interesting difference with Synth Riders is that you have elongated orbs that form a rail of sorts to symbolise an extended note. These notes require you to hold one of your of orbs on the rail, while the line undulates in time with the music, implying the riding of a synth wave. There are currently 30 tracks to choose from and difficulty settings for most tracks range from easy to master. The music is from a collection of EDM artists by the FiXT label and covers electronic rock, synth-rock, dubstep and electronica.
In such an already oversaturated and competitive market, any new VR rhythm needs to do something special to stand out and unfortunately Synth Riders, while enjoyable and well put together, feels rather pedestrian and conventional. The actual mechanic of hitting an orb in time with the music just didn’t feel as enjoyable as I was hoping –there’s not much visual or audio feedback when you hit or touch an orb in time to the music and it all feels a bit flat. It’s certainly nowhere near as satisfying as slicing a cube in Beat Saber. Adding to that feeling is a slightly confused system at the core of the game. I’m still not sure if outside of the ‘synth-wave rails’ the game wants me to punch individual orbs in time to the music or to just get my hand into the right position to contact them. Looking at the in-game explanation for points scoring, the suggestion is that you need to punch these individual orbs as hard, and as close to the centre, as possible. The problem is that on anything above medium difficulty (and the game is really meant to be played on hard upwards) the orbs arrive at your platform in huge numbers and at an incredibly quick speeds. Punching each of these is just about possible (and is a good work out!) but it’s not really that fun as you must learn the patterns so intimately to have any chance at all of completing the track. When playing the game in this fashion I never got into that essential ‘flow’ state that marks out the very best rhythm games. Additionally, the orbs are so small that it’s just guess work as to whether you’re hitting the centre or not. Even if you learn a track, the sheer volume and speed that you’re asked to hit individual orbs results in many being missed. I actually had a lot more success and fun when I just put my hands into the right position to contact the orbs rather than to hit them. This also felt much more tonally aligned to the ambience the game is trying to create; I felt much more like I was riding/surfing a synth wave – which is a satisfying buzz – rather than going through a workout regime (like you would in BoxVR). Saying that though, if you’re just holding your hands out to get them into the right position for individual orbs, how is this any different to riding the synth-waves of the elongated notes? As I said, it’s a confusing system.
This slight friction between the two different ways to play the game and the ambience the game wants to create is also demonstrated by the visuals. The game really majors on neon, low-fi, 80s visuals. It looks great, if a touch simple, and I like the way you actually feel like you’re travelling through a Tron inspired world. It’s a shame that there are only 8 stages and that they start to loop for some of the longer tracks but there’s some very interesting visual design work. But this, stark, neon, almost Blade Runner-like noir setting, doesn’t really marry up tonally with the fitness game expectation that the game’s scoring system suggests is how best to play. I wish that the developers had really doubled down on the Synth riding element rather than trying to accommodate two different styles of playing the game. I would have loved to see a game which jettisoned the fitness element (i.e. punching notes) and really empathised surfing through the cyberpunk landscape, trying to position your hands on rails of synth notes that twisted elegantly in time to the music. If the scoring system could have accommodated this at higher levels, and if the stages had been built around this mechanic and been more alive and dynamic, I think the game would have been much more fun and unique. There are actually a few lower tempo tracks in the game with long synth rails and when using my hands to almost meditatively ride these rails I saw glimpses of how transcendent this game could have been.
With any rhythm game – be it in VR or not – the music is the most subjective element. Personally, I like a good number of the 30 tracks on offer here but I do feel that some tracks just don’t line up properly with the atmosphere the game is attempting to create. Given the amount and their varied nature I do think that most people will find at least a few tracks here that they like, and it’s a generous offering considering how many there are and the amount of beat maps that have been created to accommodate the various difficulty settings. Clearly, if you’re a fan of the record label or any of the acts featured then you will definitely get even more out of the soundtrack (and the game) than I did.
One minor, but surprising, point to mention is that for a rhythm game you will need some tolerance for motion sickness. Unlike most VR rhythm games, where you’re stationary and the objects move towards you, here you’re moving towards the orbs and through a level. It’s certainly not intense and I had no problems at all, but my girlfriend, who plays a lot of Beat Saber, felt quite nauseous after playing a few tracks in Synth Riders. It won’t affect most people, particularly those who have some experience in VR, but it’s worth noting for more causal players. You can turn off moving backgrounds and have a more stationary experience but that does make the game far less visually arresting.
One thing that I really liked about Synth Riders is that you can turn on having an in-game avatar. I think this is a great feature and always helps to improve immersion by allowing you to look down at an in-game body. Surprisingly, this feature also led to one of the scariest moments I have ever had while playing VR – a glitch at the end of one of the tracks resulted in my avatar’s body jumping way from my head before then rapidly crawling, bent over backwards in a crab stance, to re-attach itself with my in-game head. It terrified me as it crawled, exorcist style, towards me!
All in all, Synth Riders is an enjoyable game if slightly lacking in originality and clarity of purpose. It’s polished and the visuals, while simple, are well conceived and generally fit the music well. Unfortunately, the game mechanics are slightly muddled, not that satisfying and hard to fully understand. To perform very well at the game you have to play the game in a very ‘fitness game’ way that is not as much fun as riding the synth-waves that the game does so well and feels to me almost counter to the atmosphere the game is trying to establish.
What would I pay? The price is reasonable given the amount of content on offer. 30 tracks across 8 stages and multiple difficulty levels results in a significant amount of game for anyone to get through. It is worth noting though that there are a lot of games in this space, many of which I would argue offer more enjoyable and satisfying gameplay
Kluge Interactive provided The VR Grid with press codes for this title and, regardless of this review, we thank them for that!